by Anne Fletcher, M.S., R.D.
It's time for a new attitude about "dieting" - one that enables you not only to lose weight but keep it off.
What's the secret? For answers, I turned to the real experts - people who are "masters" of their former weight problems and have successfully maintained weight loss.
Based on their experiences, here are seven resolutions that may help lead you to long-term success:
1) I'll start by setting a realistic goal.
Aim for a weight at which you feel good and have no related medical problems.
People who've lost weight and kept it off aren't necessarily "thin." Many have accepted they'll be somewhat heavier than their "dream" weights. Indeed, it's easier to maintain weight loss at a "comfortable" body weight - one at which you feel positive about your appearance, but don't feel like you're starving yourself.
To remain encouraged when the scale seems to be stuck, track benefits other than "pounds lost" - sleeping more soundly, generally feeling better about yourself, and having more energy or easing weight-related medical problems, like high blood pressure.
2) I'll keep track of what I eat, at least from time to time.
Maintain either a written or mental food diary.
Even though the weight-loss masters slimmed down years ago, three out of four told me they still keep track of what they eat in some fashion. While some keep written food diaries of everything they eat, others keep tabs mentally. Some find it particularly helpful to write down what they eat when they're having trouble.
One woman said she writes down what she eats just one day a week; she finds that the single day of accountability keeps her on track the other six days.
Research backs this up: In a study of people who had been on a weight-loss regimen for almost a year, the ones who most consistently wrote down what they ate lost - on average - an additional seven pounds in the period starting two weeks before Thanksgiving and ending two weeks after New Year's Day.
3) I'll use the scale in a sensible way.
If you don't like what you see, act on it - cut back on snacks or exercise more.
While it can be discouraging to jump on the scale while trying to lose weight, experience shows it's not a good idea to avoid the scale either. Now that they've lost the pounds, most weight-loss masters weigh themselves regularly - at least once a week - to stay within their "buffer zones," a weight within a one- to five-pound range.
One study revealed that three of four participants at the National Weight Control Registry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine weigh themselves at least once a week.
If the scale creeps up, the weight-loss masters are inclined to act immediately. Strategies range from increasing exercise to giving up snacks for a while. Others return to the diet that helped them lose weight until they're back where they want to be.
4) I'll pay attention to fat and calories.
Portion size always matters.
Few weight-loss masters count fat grams. However, low-fat eating concepts do guide them. Nine of 10 weight-loss masters indicated they make an effort to eat low-fat foods. They strictly limit fried, greasy foods and added fats like butter, margarine, mayonnaise and salad dressing - often substituting low-fat versions. They also strictly limit meats.
The mainstays of their diets are fruits, vegetables and low-fat carbohydrates such as breads, cereals and pasta - quite different from the current high-protein, low-carbohydrate dieting trend.
They also pay attention to calories, having learned that a low-fat label is not a license to overindulge. They watch portion sizes - even of low-fat foods - and remain fully aware of calories.
This is a real difference from the way many Americans approach weight loss. A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association on more than 100,000 Americans found that people who are trying to lose weight commonly attempt to eat less fat, but not necessarily fewer calories. That's a recipe for "staying put" with your weight.
5) I'll be consistent about exercise.
Commit yourself to make time for regular walking, bicycling or any moderate exercise you enjoy.
There's no question that exercise is part of the equation for most people who lose weight and keep it off. One study of participants in the National Weight Control Registry revealed that weight-loss masters burned off an average of 400 calories a day by exercising.
For a 150-pound person, that's equivalent to walking briskly for about 75 minutes per day - or walking roughly 28 miles per week.
What's striking about people committed to exercise is their consistency. No matter what, they fit it into their schedules. It becomes akin to putting on a seatbelt or brushing your teeth - it's a habit, and it doesn't feel right when you skip it.
On the other hand, I came across few marathon runners - walking is their top form of exercise. In addition, they aren't fanatical: Most people I surveyed give themselves days off from working out.
Finally, many of the weight-loss masters choose variety in exercise. They might go bicycling one day and do weight training the next. The changes help keep them interested.
6) I'll give myself permission to be human.
Don't deny yourself a favorite food, but do control the portion size.
If you can't control yourself around a certain food, save it for a special treat.
No one's perfect: If you slip, tomorrow's another day.
When I asked the weight-loss masters to describe their respective eating habits in 25 words or less, I frequently heard something like this: "If I want something, I have it." They don't deny themselves their favorite foods, but they do watch portions. One woman who used to eat a half-gallon carton of ice cream in an evening - and was 100 pounds heavier - now always has her ice cream in the same very small cup to control the portion.
They also take steps to make sure they don't go overboard. Most have decided to keep highly tempting foods out of their homes or out of sight. Instead, they might save a favorite dessert for a restaurant meal, where the portion size is controlled.
If the masters slip and eat in a way they hadn't intended, they don't let a lapse become a relapse. One woman who lost 50 pounds told me, "I look at the big picture, reminding myself that there are a multitude of things I do in a day, in a week..." She realizes that one slip won't undo all the positive steps she takes to control her weight.
7) I'll find weight-control strategies I can live with.
Give yourself credit for small successes; they add up. Strive to make your strategy to lose weight the one you use to keep it off.
When weight-loss masters were asked what they think makes them different from people who lose weight and then gain it back, their top responses had to do with recognizing that they couldn't go back to their old ways - that they had to change their eating and exercise habits for good.
They no longer see a distinction between the steps needed to lose weight and the strategies they use to keep it off.
For you, that might mean making an effort to eat breakfast each day so you're not ravenous at lunchtime. It could be finding a way to incorporate at least five fruits and vegetables into your meals each day. Or it might mean trying to reward yourself with treats other than food - a hot bath, a manicure or a new book to read.
Each day, focus on small successes - things you "did right" - rather than where you deviated from your weight-loss plan. The small successes can add up to a new you, and a lifetime of feeling better about yourself and your weight.
Anne Fletcher, M.S., R.D., is the author of Thin for Life, Eating Thin for Life, and Thin for Life Daybook.